"The Twelve" by Justin Cronin: Life in a time of locusts and plague

  • Article by: CAROLE E. BARROWMAN , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 13, 2012 - 7:14 PM

In the second volume of Justin Cronin's futuristic trilogy, three strangers fight a deadly enemy.

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Justin Cronin

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According to Justin Cronin's prologue in "The Twelve," it came to pass that the world "had grown wicked" and "God looked upon his creation with great sadness," sending a deluge across the earth and the "monsters of men's hearts" were made flesh.

Thus plagues of vampire locusts, called virals, swarmed the earth, forming the "Twelve Viral Tribes" who laid "waste to every living thing," except for pockets of survivors, and Amy, "a child to stand against them."

"The Passage," the first in Cronin's planned trilogy, is that creation story -- a poetic post-apocalyptic tale that's part supernatural thriller and part philosophical meditation on the nature of humanity. If "The Passage" is the trilogy's Genesis, this second book, "The Twelve," is its Exodus, a complex narrative of flight and forgiveness, of great suffering and staggering loss, of terrible betrayals and incredible hope.

But whereas "The Passage" sets its philosophy, allegory and fictional artifice on the backbone of a terrific blood-curdling thriller, in "The Twelve," the suspense is hobbled beneath a crushing burden of too many time jumps and too many characters.

Time in this novel is distended, pulled apart, and deliberately out of sync as Cronin matches form and content. Like the Twelve, Amy is a being "out of time," a kind of rebel angel fighting against the melding consciousness of the viral hordes. Her childhood was "an abstraction of history," as she's drawn toward the ultimate sacrifice she must make for humanity's sins.

Each jump continues the story arcs of characters from "The Passage," shifting forward to their descendants or turning back to their ancestors. At significant points, Amy's story cuts into these beginnings, middles and endings.

Characters travel from the year Zero to 100 years after the virals (AV), from "Denver's Last Stand" to a despotic Homeland ripe for revolution that satisfies its citizens' bloodlust with gladiator fights against caged virals (one of the most riveting sections). And then there are busloads of new characters (I kept the author's list of "Dramatis Personae" near). The result of all of this is a disconnect between the reader and the characters and a collapse of suspense across the novel as a whole.

No doubt Cronin is a prophetic and passionate writer, capturing a world of "emotional incontinence" where "the drive to kill" has become our nature, where "humanity [is] dissolving and taking its stories with it," and where "the journey [has] acquired its own meaning, independent of any destination."

And so if "The Twelve" is humanity's wandering in the proverbial wasteland, then the novel's ending suggests the final book in the trilogy will be a revelation.

Carole E. Barrowman teaches English at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at www.carolebarrowman.com.

  • related content

  • THE TWELVE by Justin Cronin

  • THE TWELVE

    By: Justin Cronin. Publisher: Ballantine Books, 568 pages, $28.

    Review: Cronin's writing is poetic and passionate, but "The Twelve" lacks the suspense of "The Passage," with confusing time shifts and too many new characters.

    Event: 7 p.m. Oct. 26, Barnes & Noble, Har Mar Mall, Roseville.

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